Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was critical of American Jewish community leaders who were involved in staging a march to the Kotel, or Western Wall, on Nov. 2 as part of a protest to restrictions on egalitarian worship at the holy site. About a dozen Torah scrolls were carried into the women’s section for use during the Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer service, something that the site’s haredi Orthodox custodians have prevented the group from doing for 25 years. The protestors were met with pushing and shoving by haredi Orthodox worshipers, many of whom shouted insults.
Netanyahu’s response was to accuse the egalitarian Jewish groups of “unnecessary friction” and of “the unilateral violation of the status quo at the Western Wall.” The night before, knowing that the protest was planned, Netanyahu told 200 Diaspora Jews at the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting to be patient. “Sometimes things require patience and tolerance. I’ve been dealing with this now for over 20 years. I can tell you I have patience and tolerance, and I hope you do too,” he said.
The polar ice cap is melting faster than the issue of religious pluralism at the Kotel is being resolved. A compromise agreement on the issue was reached by all the parties in January. It would have expanded the egalitarian section at the Wall and placed it under the authority of a pluralist committee while solidifying Orthodox control over the site’s traditional Orthodox section. Women of the Wall would have moved to the non-Orthodox section once the deal was implemented. After first agreeing, Orthodox leaders denounced the plan. Then in June, a group of Orthodox Jewish organizations filed a petition with Israel’s Supreme Court to prevent the establishment of the egalitarian section.
This is the status quo that Netanyahu asked the protestors not to disrupt. And he added a tug on the conscience of his audience, citing the UNESCO resolution in which the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the holy places appears not to exist. “The last thing we need now to resolve this sensitive issue — while the world is saying that we have nothing, no patrimony there, at a place that has been our spiritual center for over 3,000 years — the last thing we need now is more friction,” he said.
Well, yes and no. Two weeks ago we addressed the offensiveness of the UNESCO resolution and called its historical fantasy an outrage. And we commented upon how the UNESCO vote had the rare effect of uniting nearly all Jewish groups in opposition. But UNESCO’s outrage cannot excuse Israeli government intransigence or lack of sensitivity to religious pluralism. Besides, we don’t see why the prime minister cannot work on both problems at once — particularly since there is so much to be gained from a Kotel resolution that unites all Jews around the holy site.